Joss Whedon has fallen badly from grace in the last ten years, with allegations of on-set abuse and reappraisals of his body of work that have viewed his version of millennial feminism and empowerment in a more sceptical light. Ten years on from Avengers Assemble (or The Avengers if you’re American), it’s hard to return to one of the biggest films of all time in the wake of his fall from grace, especially when the film remains such a well-put-together piece of entertainment. But the film marks a significant shift in the direction of the MCU that, on the one hand, opened up the MCU to having a much more comic tone, but also introduced some of the franchise’s more problematic ideologies.
Avengers Assemble is almost perfectly constructed. It begins by dropping us into a crisis for some of the franchise’s fringe characters, putting SHIELD front and centre, and giving Samuel L. Jackson’s Nick Fury much more to do as Loki arrives on Earth and announces his intentions to take over. Then the film takes its time to reintroduce all of our main characters, before slowly bringing them together aboard a SHIELD helicarrier, where they face their first big crisis as a team while also learning if they can trust one another. And then, briefly separated, they’re then all brought back together for the jaw-dropping Battle of New York, which announces the existence of aliens to humanity and offers a seismic battle that means the Avengers will no longer be in the shadows.
What makes it bounce is the script. While there are a couple of nasty misogynist lines, for the most part the script is content to roll along effortlessly: making neat verbal and thematic connections that tie together the disparate stories in a coherent way; offering bathetic humour that undercuts the seriousness; and feeding in little motifs and pay-offs that instil confidence in the viewer. It’s a film that is confident enough to let its heroes fall into an argument whose actual words are undiscernable while the camera drifts away and turns upside down, stepping outside of the actual content for a moment to reflect on what’s happening. And when the big laughs come – especially from Hulk in his very limited lines – they’re genuinely hilarious.
But while the military has been a big part of the MCU hitherto – from Tony’s unholy alliances with the military to Steve’s role as the military’s frontman, and Bruce’s reluctant agreement to work with them – this is the film that turns everyone into soldiers. Indeed, so far, the military has been a presence but a discrete one, which operates alongside but separately to our heroes. Here, SHIELD is recreated as a terrifyingly over-funded and violent organisation: it’s stockpiling Hydra weapons powered by the Tesseract and creating more powerful ones (a thread here that will pay off to excellent effect in Captain America: The Winter Soldier); it carries nukes that can be fired by a mysterious World Security Council regardless of the wishes of the people manning the weapons carrier; it is conducting secret research that opens up a world-threatening event; and it is massively in love with its guns.
The film tries to interrogate the militarism by setting up the Avengers – both individually and collectively – as people who are brought on board by SHIELD but who interrogate it and are suspicious of it, ultimately celebrating their idiosyncrasy and independence. But the militarist thinking goes much deeper than the actual plot. It’s embedded in the clipped way all the characters now speak to one another, in the talk of making calls and plays, and in the reliance on the idea of subsuming individual autonomy to the needs of a (highly funded, highly weaponised, questionably motivated) military organisation. As much as Tony refuses throughout the film to be thought of as a soldier, the whole film is about them becoming soldiers. The character who has the most complete arc in the film is, surprisingly, Captain America, who finds himself a bit out of his depth faced with the modern world and takes a lot of beatings next to the godlike Thor, the invulnerable Hulk, and the hi-tech Iron Man. But it turns out that Cap is here because the team needs a leader – because he’s the one who can bring the egos together and serve the greater good. The military mindset is essential to the victory.
The whole milieu of SHIELD is what risks unbalancing the film. Where it has been a shadowy, supportive presence til now, here it comes to the fore, and the issues with this will continue throughout Agents of SHIELD – though the dangers of this increasingly suspicious organisation will at least be dealt with in The Winter Soldier. It’s an aesthetic that the film is much too in love with. But against this, what’s pleasing is that this is a character-led film. While it has its share of big action films, Avengers understands the importance of Black Widow and Loki having a long, metaphor-laden interrogation, of Bruce and Tony bonding in their lab together, and of Phil Coulson wandering around making quiet small talk and cheering everyone along, the film subtly emphasising his role as the unsuspicious, connecting thread whose sudden and surprisingly moving death has an earned impact. The most positive view is to see the individuality that emerges from the performances (especially Mark Ruffalo, new to the team but in an absolute breakout role that gives a quiet, humble humility to Bruce without sacrificing the undercurrent of rage) as thrown into light by the authoritarian archness of SHIELD. But in many ways, Whedon’s version of Marvel would become the problem that the next generation of directors (especially the Russo Brothers) would need to unpick.